Robot songs of bookish love

This article is great, because it details the process by which an algorithm – called TransProse, no less – can take the ’emotional temperature’ of literature and generate a piece of music on the results. Such as this, gleaned from A Clockwork Orange.

I’m kind of thrilled about this because I’ve always loved the way computers can take stuff we’ve created and make things from them. When I was younger, I used to play around with a DOS program called MARKV, which would eat any text you fed it – the longer the better – and then return output based on Markov Chains. It was random but it also relied on statistical examination of what pieces of data sat next to, so you’d receive something back which followed the kind of rules required for construction of lucid text… but in a very strange way.

I’ll wait. There’s an online version here. Go check it out. Or, better yet, feed album reviews or party political statements into it: the result is no more confusing than the real thing. 

Anyway, pre-millennial trolls used this kind of text analysis to create a USENET character named Mark V. Shaney, who posted on the alt.singles newsgroup. The text was entirely created by a program, yet people believed they came from another human. Which, I suppose, goes to show what people would accept on alt.singles as passing for someone with a pulse. Penn Jillett (of Penn & Teller fame) wrote about it, too.

There’s a collection of MVS postings over here, which should be pretty amusing if you haven’t seen them. Though I must say, the theorywanker in me loves this bit, culled from Wikipedia:

Dewdney pointed out “perhaps Mark V. Shaney’s magnum opus: a 20-page commentary on the deconstructionist philosophy of Jean Baudrillard” directed by Pike, with assistance from Henry S. Baird and Catherine Richards, to be distributed by email. The piece was based on Jean Baudrillard’s “The Precession of Simulacra”, published in Simulacra and Simulation (1981).

HOLY DIGITAL WANKERY! And possibly the basis for this time-honoured cartoon, eh?

But back to TransProse. I love the idea that a program/computer/robot/brain in a jar can interpret a source text and provide something ‘creative’ with its findings. The fact there’s a number of things you can tweak – note restrictions, key, scale and more – mean the results are often different, and could be made more ‘suitable’ to our interpretation of the piece at hand. Take Heart of Darkness for example – if analysis of the text is unconstrained to scale, we hear something fittingly grim:

Keep Cormac McCarthy’s The Road data on the down-low, and you have an equally dystopian sound:

It’s early days for TransProse yet. With refinements, I’d be surprised if the software’s creations didn’t begin to confuse people. At present there’s a slightly too-mechanical feel to what’s created by the software. At present, the octave spans the distance from joy to sadness, shorter notes = more emotionally dense areas, and more emotion creates more dissonant notes. Even with these three rules, there’s some great stuff coming out.

The creators’ research paper is available to read here. It’s fascinating, so you should.

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